Appetizers
October 3, 2011
Some good wine and an inspiring encounter with owls

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There were plenty of activities from which to choose this weekend, from a bike tour sponsored by Slow Food Sacramento to a wine tasting event in Curtis Park and movies in Freemont Park sponsored by Hot Italian.

But I was looking for something a little new and different, so on Saturday afternoon we made the short drive to the little Delta town of Clarksburg, traveled to the outskirts along roads with fields of grapes for as far as the eye could see, then turned into the driveway of Heringer Estates. Yes, we were there to taste wine, but we were also excited about the main event - the release of two owls into the wild.

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The weather was perfect - cool and clear and not a stitch of wind -- when we arrived around 5 p.m. The crowds were just getting there and the event was to be picnic style in the lovely backyard of the Heringer family home. All around us: fields of wine grapes.

We bought two glasses of wine - a chardonnay and a viognier - and began to mingle. Staff members from the Sacramento-based Wildlife Care Association were on hand to talk about the owls, the many other wild animals it helps, and the non-profit group's mission. Along the way, they showed off some very inspiring owls, including a 20-year-old great-horned owl (second photo) living in captivity because of a wing/shoulder injury, a screech owl (top photo) that is blind in one eye and a little burrowing owl with a damaged wing.

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Also there was an all-white crow (above). This is a genetic mutation that happens every once in a while --- and it is almost always a death sentence. Crows invariably reject these white, or leucistic, owls because they pose a threat (probably attracting attention to predators, among other things).

I really enjoyed seeing these ambassador birds and sipping some wine. I was eager to witness the owl release - two barn owls that were rehabilitated by Wildlife Care Association.

Winemaker Michael Heringer says the owl release reflects the family winery's overall philosophy about being good stewards of the land. All of the Heringer vineyards are certified sustainable and green by a third-party agency. The released owls will be de facto employees of the vineyard, hunting down critters for food, and providing a far safer/greener alternative to pest and rodent control for the vineyard. Heringer held an owl release last year, too, and those owls remain a presence around the property.

It's thrilling to see. The rodents? They're not so thrilled.

"We've been farming here for six generations and you can't have been here for that long and not be responsible and sustainable and committed to the land and the habitat that's on it," the 31-year-old winemaker told me. "The owls will be doing what they do best, which is hunt for their families. We have little gophers and moles and squirrels that can sometimes take their toll. We rely on the natural method of balancing that versus the non-organic alternative.

"It's a good fit for wildlife care, finding a home for the wonderful owls that they rehabilitate."

As dusk approached, the Wildlife Care handlers carried two hefty boxes to an open area of the large lawn as spectators stayed safely back. They released the first one, which quickly sped away out of sight. Then the second barn owl stretched out its large wings and took off, turning toward the crowd before flying onto the branch of a large tree near a swing set on the edge of the property. Unfortunately, given the poor light and my distance, I was unable to get a nice photo.

But it was a memorable and meaningful event, and we certainly look forward to returning next year.

If you, too, love wildlife and admire the work this group is doing, you might want to make a donation to the Wildlife Care Association, which runs entirely on donations. In recent years, I have taken two young birds to the facility at McClellan Park for rehabilitation and I could tell I was leaving the birds in good hands. (I'm told it is always best to return young birds to their nests, but in these cases, I was unable to locate the nests). 100 percent of wine sales at the event Saturday were donated to the cause.

Those interested in chipping in can send donations to: WCA, P.O. Box 680, North Highlands, CA, 95660. For more information, visit the website, www.wildlifecareassociation.com.

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